What It Says on the Tin
Bad Rats is a curious social phenomenon. Look for coverage of the game on any major site and you won’t find it, try to seek out legitimate reviews of the title and your search will turn up next to nothing, and yet among a small segment of the internet the game has attained a cult status, and for all the wrong reasons. Bad Rats is a 2009 physics-based puzzle game which was received so startlingly poorly but was sold at such a low price that it became a running joke to gift it to people on Steam. You can pay less than a pound, select your victim, and all of a sudden they’re stuck with a mockery of a video game festering away forever in their library. Maybe they even feel obligated to play it and you get to subject another person to the groanworthy content of the experience. The gag bleeds out into the store page for the title where the most upvoted user reviews claim that the game is of only the highest quality or portray it as something it’s clearly not. One user states its problem is that it’s too good, another claims that it’s an FPS to rival Call of Duty. The most sensible review might also be the most ridiculous, in which a person who has banked an apparent 12,000 hours in the game writes “its ok”. But could it be that beyond all this ridicule that there’s something within Bad Rats to be praised? That even if it’s become the laughing stock of a couple of internet forums that it’s doing some interesting things other games aren’t? No, of course not. Bad Rats is without a doubt one of the worst games I’ve ever encountered on the Steam platform and that’s saying something. In fact, it’s one of those pieces of media that’s so impressively awful you feel compelled to share it with other people.
Get beyond the main menu’s terrible font choices and you’ll find gameplay which consists of building a kind of rodent-based Rube Goldberg machine. Every level has a ball, a cat, and some kind of hazardous object near the cat. You just need to set up all your items in such a way that that ball hits that hazard and kills the poor moggy. There are stock objects like crates and planks of wood for your use, but then there are the various different cartoon rats that you’ll need to utilise to complete the levels, like a rat with a baseball bat which will hit the ball when it comes near it, or one with a rocket strapped to its back which will fly off in the direction it’s facing. The game does have at least one good idea in that the “Easy Mode” shows where in the level you need to place objects to solve the puzzle but doesn’t tell you which objects go in those spots, and when all your components line up to let you complete a stage it can be satisfying. However, any aspect of this game that could be enjoyable is consistently undermined by a dizzying list of faults.
In Bat Rats even something as normally simple as placing your items can easily become a frustrating process. The inventory is not simply a menu that you can keep up alongside the rest of the screen, but is a physical part of the level that you must scroll down to every time you want to retrieve something. Sometimes the objects you do retrieve will refuse to be placed in tight spaces, which the levels are full of, or they’ll snap to surfaces where they can’t actually be put down. The “Wooden Plank” is the worst offender for this and will frequently skew itself into positions that are entirely unhelpful. In a similar way, if you’re trying to attach a “Balloon” or “Umbrella” to an object the game will sometimes give you the okay for it, but then when you release the mouse tell you that it’s been invalidly positioned and have it teleported back to your inventory. Many of the rats start by default facing the opposite way you’d need to use them in the level and altering their position or any of their other attributes is a task that takes just a little too long, requiring you to right-click the rat, enter a drop-down menu, and select a new option from there. You can quickly “Flip” an object to invert its direction, but if you want to rotate it you have to hold down a “+” or “-” button to watch it spin round at an excruciatingly slow speed before you’re done. Rotating isn’t something you’ll want to do all that much though because typically any rotated rat will immediately fall over and flail about the level. Some rats, like the “Rocket Rat” or the “Bomber” also have a timer that must elapse before they perform their action, which you can set yourself, but it’s never stated what unit of measurement the timer is using. It’s all very fiddly.
This is only the beginning, as the real problems with the gameplay arise out of what happens when you get that ball moving. Often the exact trajectory of the ball when it hits a rat is difficult to predict or the physics of it won’t work in a logical way. The “Bomber” is a great example of this as despite the pre-level tips telling you that it’s a good way to bounce the ball upwards, when the ball impacts it it just flies off in a general direction, and if there’s any element of timing involved in the use of an object like there is with the “Balloon” or the “Rocket Rat”, it’s very hard to account for. It’s a hurdle to not only being able to reliably strategize in levels, but also interrupts the sense of flow in the gameplay. You can’t get those moments you’d want to in a Rube Goldberg-style puzzle where you see the ball effortlessly bounce off of a series of objects in succession, it’s all numb, self-conflicting movement. There’s even some component of 3D movement in the physics, despite the game playing on a 2D plane, meaning that the ball can end up basically where you need it, but in front of or behind the object you want it to hit. The pseudo-randomness doesn’t stop there either.
You can construct a level solution, have the ball ping off of your various rats and items, reset the ball, and watch it take a different route the second time round. This is a problem to the point that even the developer solutions you can load up upon completing a stage can be seen time and time again unsuccessfully fighting the physics engine to try and get the ball to the goal. A puzzle game is sabotaged the moment when you cannot rely on the rules to act the same way twice and that’s what you see in Bad Rats. The game will cheat you out of success and you end up hitting the “Stop” and “Play” buttons repeatedly while changing nothing in your setup because it’s possible that things will just randomly go better on one of your attempts than on any of the others. In some cases moving a rat just a few pixels one way or the other has a drastic effect on how the path of the ball plays out and it’s even possible to mess up in the tutorial because of the occasional necessity of precision placement. It’s really the last kind of game that needs a time limit, but that’s in there too. It’s annoying because you can waste the majority of the time on the clock fighting the game’s troublesome physics only to be given the “Game Over” screen at the end. The time limit is also fairly pointless, as although the game kicks you out to the menu when your time elapses, you can just reload from a save or enter a password to reach the level you want. It’s easy to lose a lot of progress the first time you encounter this though as the game doesn’t auto-save or save upon quitting.
When you do complete a level you can upload your score to the internet, but this causes the game to automatically return to desktop and open a separate window to do so, and as you move ahead through the levels you see the game fail to evolve. A good puzzle game has lots of simple parts that you can and do need to organise in a wide variety of configurations, but in Bad Rats you end up seeing the same few kinds of challenges pop up again and again. The game is less about finding smart new dynamics between the components and more about hoping that even though you’re using the same patterns in your play as in previous levels that the physics engine doesn’t screw you over. The game seems to want to encourage a degree of experimentation, allowing you to complete some levels in multiple ways, but when certain solutions are so much easier than others, when there’s a time limit, and when the game gives you a score penalty for how many tries it took to complete the stage, you just don’t want to, especially because, as mentioned before, some types of rats are borderline useless. When you don’t pick a certain variant of rodent from your inventory it’s often not just that it’s the wrong one for the job, but that it feels unwieldy to work with.
On top of everything else, the game is unambiguously ugly. Its premise is ugly, its art style is ugly, and how it realises that art style is ugly. Its aesthetic could have been pulled right off of a 90s sweets wrapper, bringing you characters and a setup which the game seems sure are actually much more zany and edgy than they really are, and shoving them into filthy, gory scenario for the sake of it. Seeing the rat which smokes a cigarette standing in front of one of the game’s many back alley graffiti tags tells you just about everything you need to know about Bad Rats’ style. Also, I just don’t want to kill the cat. Okay, “cat” might be a bit of a stretch, you’d be hard-pressed to identify the end-level sin against God as any kind of feline, but it’s furry, it makes actual cat noises, it appears to be begging for mercy, and it’s chained to the God damn ground. I’m sympathetic towards it, and don’t want to microwave it alive or have a dog strip the meat from its bones, and not just because the “death” effects look startlingly unprofessional. If this only sounds somewhat gross, consider that the “Bomber” rat I’ve been referring to is envisioned by the game as a parody of a Middle Eastern religious terrorist. You can even see him praying when left idle. I don’t know who would think this was a good idea. Beyond the conceptual, the sound is cheap and drastically underproduced, the rats are fairly primitively rendered, the textures look grubby, and all of this can be brought you at a blistering 1024x768. The highest of the three resolutions the game offers is actually 1240x1024, but on some machines the game crashes (and of course immediately dumps all unsaved progress) the moment you attempt to select that option and on others can cause the game to enter a windowed mode in which it becomes literally impossible to play. Even if you can get it to work, the game forgets your graphical and audio settings every single time you quit so you can have plenty of fun resetting them upon each boot.
Bad Rats feels like a video game that should have come out about twenty years ago and even then would have been a real clunker. There are elusive shimmers of a working game in here, but it’s so bogged down in failures in design, programming, and art in the that the only reason you’re left with to play Bad Rats is to see how eye-poppingly terrible it is.